Benitez given safe Europa route but Fulham's path fraught with danger
Saturday 19 December 2009
It said everything about Liverpool's ignominious exit from Europe's elite competition that while Manchester United and Chelsea could salivate over Italian competition yesterday, Rafael Benitez's charges were examining their atlases to find a Romanian town which sounds like something you'd locate inside a gents' toilet.
The Europa League draw, which sees Liverpool face Romanian champions Unirea Urziceni in the first knock-out round and the winners of Lille and Fenerbahce if they progress, does offer Benitez the prospect of potentially straightforward progress to a semi-final, though.
The Romanians, managed by former Chelsea full-back Dan Petrescu, won 4-1 at Rangers and defeated Seville 1-0 at home in the course of their exit from the Champions League so the challenge cannot be underestimated.
Playing an unheralded side does bring its pressures for Liverpool: defeat to a club who must play at the Steaua Stadium in Bucharest because their own has a capacity of just 7,000 would be a huge embarrassment to Benitez. Yet it is not as bad as it could have been with the unseeded Liverpool avoiding Marseilles, Juventus and Shakhtar Donetsk in a strong field for this tournament.
"The Champions League has the best teams, that is clear – though they are missing one, Liverpool," Benitez said in reaction to the draw. "But there are so many good teams that the Europa League will be difficult. Atletico [Madrid] and Valencia are massive clubs so you will see a lot of big clubs, like Juventus. When we won the Uefa Cup at Valencia [in 2004] and when Liverpool won it [in 2001] it was an important competition. Now it is less important than before because the Champions League is so massive, but you will see top sides so it will be interesting. There are good teams. It surprised me people saying we had to win the Europa League, because if you check the teams that are there it will be difficult."
It remains to be seen if he will be tempted to rest players, to the detriment of the league effort, or go full strength for Europe. Unirea arrive at Anfield on 18 February, three days before Liverpool's potentially crucial trip to Manchester City. The away leg precedes a home match with Blackburn. Benitez said yesterday that the Premier League top-four place was more important. "If we win some [Europa League] games we will be the same [as the Champions League] in terms of money. For us, the main thing is to qualify in the top four and guarantee we are in the top four," he said.
Lille are fifth in France's Ligue 1, but only a point behind Lyons who eliminated Liverpool. Fenerbahce lead the Turkish Super Lig and have dropped only three points at home all season.
Everton have been drawn against Sporting Lisbon and manager David Moyes has welcomed a return to the city after his side was thrashed 5-0 by Benfica when they last visited the Portuguese capital in the group stages in October. Having recovered from that trip to qualify for the last 32, Moyes was upbeat. "I'm looking forward to it," he said. "Last time we went there was disappointing but this time we will hopefully go there with a full team and be able to put on a better show. Sporting will be really tough – they have been in and around the Champions League in recent seasons."
The Fulham manager, Roy Hodgson, believes his side have been handed one of the toughest draws by being paired with last year's Uefa Cup winners Shakhtar Donetsk. The Ukrainian side beat Werder Bremen in the final of Europe's second competition last season before its name and format changed this summer.
Hodgson said: "It doesn't get much harder than playing the champions, I suppose. We saw last year what a good team they are. On the other hand we have battled hard to get through the group stage and we were hoping for a good game, an interesting game."
If Fulham win they are guaranteed a glamour tie in the last 16, against Ajax or Juventus. Everton would play Atletico Madrid or Galatasaray.
Europa Cup draw
*Round of 32: R Kazan v Hapoel Tel-Aviv, A Bilbao v Anderlecht, Copen-hagen v Marseilles, Panathinaikos v Roma, A Madrid v Galatasaray, Ajax v Juventus, Bruges v Valencia, Fulham v S Donetsk, Liverpool v U Urziceni, Hamburg v PSV, Villarreal v Wolfsburg, S Liege v Red Bull Salzburg, Twente v W Bremen, Lille v Fenerbahce, Everton v Sporting, Hertha Berlin v Benfica.
To be played 18 & 25 February
*Selected round of 16:
A Madrid / Galatasaray v Everton / Sporting, Lille / Fenerbahce v Liverpool / U Urziceni, Ajax / Juventus v Fulham / S Donetsk
To be played 11 & 18 March
Unirea's player to watch Dacian Varga
*The diminutive 25-year-old played a key role in helping Unirea win their first Romanian title last season. Varga plays either as a withdrawn striker or on the left, from where his dangerous delivery causes problems. Showed what he can do with a fantastic goal against Stuttgart in the Champions League.
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